Defensive End Khalil Mack
Before the Oakland Raiders flew to the Lone Star State to take on the Houston Texans in the Wild Card round of the AFC playoffs, we asked five questions that were hoping to have answered in Saturday's game at NRG Stadium.
The Silver and Black put up a valiant effort, but in the end, they fell to the Texans 27-14, officially ending their 2016 season.
While the sting of Saturday's loss is still fresh, Head Coach Jack Del Rio's team still enjoyed a strong season, so before we officially shift our focus to the offseason, let's review our five questions, and see if our queries were answered.
1. How does Connor Cook perform?
Look, Connor Cook was admittedly put in a very tough position Saturday afternoon at NRG Stadium.
Not only did he make his first NFL start in the Raiders first postseason game since 2002, but he also asked to square off against a Texans defense that statistically speaking was the best in the NFL during the regular season.
"I look at it like I was going to come in here and I was going to play really well," said Cook. "I was confident in the game plan. I was confident in the guys around me, and that I could rely on them, and I think sometimes I just tried to do a little bit too much out there at times. I have high expectations for myself and to come in here and play like that is not a good feeling."
In total, Cook finished his first NFL start 18 of 45 for 161 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions.
While the former Michigan State Spartan was able to get some things going at times against the Houston defense, his three interceptions ended up being costly for the Silver and Black.
"It's not easy," Cook explained. "Very difficult position to play at quarterback. You have to know a lot of stuff, you have to come in and prepare your butt off. I thought I did that leading up to this week. It's just hard to go out there and win and compete in this league."
Give Cook credit though, he didn't make any excuses for his play, and there's no question that his experience Saturday will serve him well down the road.
2. Will the Raiders be better on third down?
The Silver and Black struggled across the board offensively against the Texans, and while defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's group certainly deserve credit, the Raiders certainly didn't do anything to help their cause, particularly on third down.
After converting just two of 11 third downs in the regular season finale against the Denver Broncos, the Raiders actually saw their conversion percentage dip against the Texans, as they were able to convert just two of 16 third down attempts.
With a rookie quarterback under center, being able to convert on third down was going to be crucial to the Raiders finding success, but it just didn't come to fruition against a stout Texans defense.
"Just not executing," Cook said when asked about the team's issues on third down. "Like I said, they were playing some good man coverage and they were playing a soft zone, [I] tried to check it down to the running backs and tight ends and make a play on it. But then, me, I was holding on to the ball too long, taking a sack or just not making a good pass."
3. Can Khalil Mack keep making life difficult for Brock Osweiler?
Friday afternoon Khalil Mack was named an Associated Press first-team All-Pro, and Saturday, No. 52 lived up to the billing, and showed why he's one of the premier defenders in the NFL.
While Mack – or the rest of the Raiders defense for that matter – wasn't able to bring down Osweiler behind the line of scrimmage, the athletic edge rusher filled up the stat sheet against the Texans.
At game's end, Mack had played every defensive snap for the Raiders, finishing the game with a team-leading 11 tackles, and two tackles for loss.
Jadeveon Clowney was the best defensive player for the Texans Saturday afternoon, but Mack made sure to fill his end of the bargain for the Silver and Black.
4. Can the run game hit the century mark?
Heading into the Wild Card clash against the Texans, we knew that with a rookie quarterback under center making his first NFL start, there would be an added importance in making sure that the Raiders run game was able to contribute in a big way.
However, the Texans front rose to the occasion Saturday afternoon at NRG Stadium, limiting the Raiders trio of running backs to just 58 yards on 19 carries.
"I give them a lot of credit," Latavius Murray said. "Great defense. They did what they had to do."
The Silver and Black found a plethora of success in 2016 when the run game was explosive, particularly when the group was able to hit 100 rushing yards, but when the clock hit triple zero, and the Raiders had fallen to the Texans, Murray and Co., didn't come close to that mark.
5. Who wins the turnover battle?
We've said it time and time again, it's all about ball security, particularly in the playoffs.
Well, the Texans were able to force three Connor Cook interceptions – the first of which later resulted in seven points for Houston – and on the other side of the football, the Raiders were unable to force any.
"Came into this game with two key areas that we were looking at; win the turnover battle and out-rush the opponent," Head Coach Jack Del Rio said postgame. "That is really a recipe for winning on the road in these playoffs, and we just didn't get that done."
I don't think there was anyone who expected Connor Cook to be perfect against the Texans, but the trio of turnovers – the first one in particular – proved to just be too much for the offense to overcome.
"He [Cook] won't ever be in a tougher situation than he was then," Derek Carr said. "His first action, real, being the starter action, was in the playoffs, against the number one defense on paper, in football. It will never be harder for him, and I told him that. I said, 'bro, you made great throws. I saw your decisions – even though not a lot of people could see it – I saw what you were doing. Are there things you want to correct? Yeah, absolutely. I have the same feelings after every game.'"